Often on Beyond Blue, we’ve discussed the problem of suffering, and where God is in all of it. We’ve debated how God can be good and all-powerful when so many people live with chronic illnesses like depression and poverty and disease.
I wanted to excerpt a few paragraphs from the fascinating blogalogue on Beliefnet between Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham for the Church of England and has taught at McGill, Oxford, and Cambridge.
Reading their correspondences reminded me of my small philosophy and theology classrooms back when I was studying theology, when you’d leave with more questions with which you entered.
Especially interesting was Bart Ehrman’s religious history. For most of his life he was a devout Christian, believing in God and trusting in Christ for salvation. About nine or ten years ago that changed. He writes:
I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. I simply no longer could hold to the view—which I took to be essential to Christian faith—that God was active in the world, that he answered prayer, that he intervened on behalf of his faithful, that he brought salvation in the past and that in the future, eventually in the coming eschaton, he would set to rights all that was wrong, that he would vindicate his name and his people and bring in a good kingdom (either at our deaths or here on earth in a future utopian existence).
We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.
Ironically, he’s been led back to the Bible in all of his wrestling with the problem of suffering. In his recent book, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer.” Says Ehrman:
My contention is that many of the authors of the Bible are wrestling with just this question: why do people (especially the people of God) suffer? The biblical answers are striking at times for their simplicity and power (suffering comes as a punishment from God for sin; suffering is a test of faith; suffering is created by cosmic powers aligned against God and his people; suffering is a huge mystery and we have no right to question why it happens; suffering is redemptive and is the means by which God brings salvation; and so on). Some of these answers are at odds with one another (is it God or his cosmic enemies who are creating havoc on earth?), yet many of them continue to inform religious thinkers today.
My hope in writing the book is certainly not to encourage readers to become agnostic, the path that I took. It is instead to help people think, both about this biggest of all possible questions and about the historically and culturally significant religious responses to it that can be found in the most important book in the history of our civilization.
Your question is, How can there be all these horrors ‘if there is a good and all powerful God in charge of the world?’ My comment, in my previous posting, was that in the Gospels, Jesus’ claim is, in effect, ‘This is what it looks like when God is running the world’ (one way of saying ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’). Of course I am alive to the different emphases and nuances between the Gospels, but in their different ways they agree, I think, on this: that what was going on during Jesus’ public career actually was the inauguration of ‘God being in charge of the world’ in a new way. (In this, despite their various emphases, the canonical gospels agree over against the non-canonical, wouldn’t you say?)??Of course, it didn’t look like Jesus’ contemporaries were hoping it would (victory for Israel against her enemies; new levels of purity attained; etc.). In the same way, it doesn’t look like what we would want (God abolishing disease, war, hatred, natural disaster, etc. at a stroke). But it seems to have been Jesus’ claim that this is what Israel’s God, the world’s creator, was actually up to.
From that point of view I suppose the Gospels constituted, and still constitute, a challenge to all expectations, particularly in that they link – as readers for hundreds have years have found it difficult to do – the story of Jesus’ kingdom-inauguration with the story of his crucifixion and resurrection. Somehow, they are saying, this is what it looks like when the good, all-powerful and all-loving God is in charge of the world. You may say that if this is what they’re saying then the God of whom they speak is not ‘all-powerful’ in the way we might have imagined, and I suspect that is in a sense correct. Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running of the world’ (if that’s the right phrase) in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way, running the world through an obedient, and ultimately suffering, human being, with that obedience, and especially that suffering, somehow instrumental in the whole process. What ‘we would want God to do’ – to have God measure up to our standards of ‘how a proper, good and powerful God would be running the world’! – seems to be the very thing that Jesus was calling into question.
In some ways, this takes us back to the questions I raised in my post, “Dear God: Why Lazarus?” and how my college professor, Joe Incandela, tried to explain the whole God-and-suffering puzzle to me:
If God saved us all the time, then the world would be so unpredictable that it would lack the kind of stability needed for most human activity. This has been called the “cosmic nursery school” view–one does good and gets rewarded, and does bad and gets punished. But if that happened all the time, then God would be constantly intervening in the world in ways that would make any sort of regularity in our lives look impossible. It would also make something like compassion impossible.
Compassion (or work for justice or whatever good deed you want to substitute here) requires a regular world, and a regular world means that some people get hurt who don’t deserve to get hurt. I suppose that in a broad sense, this all can be attributed to the Fall. But I think that another reasonable answer is that this is the price of a finite world. Only God is infinite and unlimited. Because of that, any created entity will be corruptible or conflicted in some way. Corruptible or conflicted things tend to rub up against other corruptible or conflicted things, and the result is physical or moral evil.
What do you think? Or is it just best not to go there (you know, if you have too many other questions and concerns fighting for think time in your brain)?